Tag Archives: Verbatim

“Home”

at The Shed, Tuesday 27th August 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

Walking through the double doors to The Shed, our perspective is instantly shifted. Rather than being greeted with the usual blank wall, a window and door gives us a view into the auditorium itself, whilst a sign on the Shed’s dressing room reads “IT Department”. Ruth Sutcliffe’s design places us inside the walls of Target East, a high rise hostel for the young and homeless, complete with posters and leaflets. Like Nadia Fall’s verbatim-led production, the lines between theatre and reality are blurred so that we may question the actions of governments past and present who haven’t done enough to help the tens of thousands who don’t get the lives they deserve. Home is a fiercely moving indictment of our collective treatment of young people, but also asks probing questions about the nature of belonging.

The two-hours of text here have been edited from over thirty hours of interviews, meaning that we only get a select group of stories Continue reading

“Monkey Bars” by Chris Goode

at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 5th October 2012

Ok, I admit it. I’ve hardly started my attempts at New Criticism very well. Granted, the proof of that metaphorical pudding will be in its eating, but I should have probably attempted to turn up to the first show post-epiphany sober, free-thinking and awake. I was none of these things. Following a manic few days and an evening enjoying drinks and chats with new members of the Warwick Drama gang, my mind fizzing and buzzing with fresh energy and exciting ideas (and the remnants of a discussion about the next Artistic Director of the National), I was probably not in the best position to be viewing and critically responding to Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars. Nonetheless, in order to attempt to regain a modicum of professionalism, the piece has been reread this morning and following some note scribbling, I’m now better positioned to get some words typed up.

I guess, in a way, I straddle the line between Goode’s broad suggestions of what it means to be an “adult” and a “child”, in that I am considered old enough to make my own choices and take responsibility, but, by and large, I am not listened to or considered by society. Until we buy into establishment ideals and become self-interested consumers, we are not seen as “fully functioning” and are described variously as “leeches”, “lazy” and “idealistic”. Monkey Bars, therefore (which takes children’s conversations verbatim and puts them in the mouths of adults), speaks to me as both subject and object. The overall effect is one of charm and joy, but beneath the warm exterior there are some darker themes and a bubbling anger.

Of particular interest is Goode’s decision to have the actors speak not in children’s voices but as themselves, which does a few things. First, it makes the words the focus. In a world which throws images and emotions at children constantly, this forces us to listen to what’s being said rather than how. True, we laugh at the content and the multiple uses of the word “like”, but fundamentally the words are of paramount importance. I’d be interested to hear the original recordings to see how much intonation has changed in performance. My guess would be that Goode has allowed actors a bit of freedom to change inflection (or at least more freedom than, say Alecky Blythe would give) so as to elucidate meaning and discover moments of comedy or poignancy. I say this due to the inclusion of a “job interview” scene, which sees a panel of children questioning another about what superhero she’d like to be. Here, the tone of the three interviewers is a little harsh, mimicking that of a panel of managers, including an aggressiveness I doubt was there in the real recording. Some may say this dilutes the impression given and to an extent changes the meaning of what’s being said, but it goes back to the idea that the words are key.

The choice to have the company speak as adults was, I imagine, hardly a difficult one for Goode, for to do that would be nigh-on suicidal. It’s true that, as one child says, adults are louder and so get listened to more. Doing this gives the words a gravitas which they wouldn’t have if the actors mimicked a child’s voice. We as an audience have to interrogate why this happens, and come to the startling conclusion that it is not, as we’d like to believe, about the content, but about all our prejudices which float around this.

Naomi Dawson’s design also straddles the gap between mature and playful. A green mat could be both turf and a playground floor simultaneously, whilst pouffe-sized illuminated white cubes references modern designer living and play dens. They shine throughout, as during the darkened scene changes they look like bright Tetris shapes floating in the dark, rearranging themselves into their next image. At the beginning of the piece, the six actors come onto stage in white shirts and black trousers, and it seems a school-child look has been opted for, but as soon as they don black business jackets, the line is once again blurred. The situations in which they find themselves – a smart bar, a fine restaurant – are therefore not incongruous with the characters they are playing.

Though Goode is not doing anything blatantly political, there’s something extremely subversive about Monkey Bars, essentially suggesting that if we listened to children (and those with childish ideas) more, we may progress more as a nation. At one point, it is suggested that wars should be stopped (“game over”) and at another one boy gives a pretty watertight argument against the monarchy. More than that, however, the production asks why we differentiate between these ideas arbitrarily, and why someone like, say, David Cameron, is given more credence with his pig-headed and regressive ideas than a child who just wants to play. One thing which is often said of artists is that we (they) stay as children forever, never failing to question and inquire, constantly wishing to play and following a determination to explore. It is artists who change things and shift ideas, and if it’s true that they are children, then it follows that children are artists. In our approach to public policy and government, then, there’s an implication in Monkey Bars that we should be more playful. We should be unafraid to make mistakes.

Alongside the political dimension in the very notion of listening to children, there is exploration here of the idea of prejudice. The children are asked to talk about gender and religion, demonstrating in these scenes just how much we condition our offspring to believe what we believe. It suggests a leaning towards nurture in the nature/nurture debate, as it’s clear these characters are just regurgitating the ideas of the adults around them. True, they’re only complaining that girls “kick weak” or that “boys are gross”, but its obvious the gender divide is already strongly entrenched at this young age.

I think it’s worth considering, too, the rise of (popular) verbatim theatre over the past few years, and its relation to Monkey Bars. I’ll try to find time to write about this more at some point, but my brain is currently wondering whether there’s a link between the popularisation of verbatim theatre and Zizek’s discussion of problems with The Real. Zizek argues that “The pursuit of the Real…equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle.” I.e, in attempting as a western capitalist society to become more in touch with an idea of “reality” which has become more and more difficult to attain and understand, we turn to staged events which feel extremely raw in order to regain this basic knowledge. In the case of verbatim theatre, therefore, we fool ourselves into thinking that what we are watching is perhaps more “real” that it actually is. On one hand, this makes the whole concept of this style of performance problematic, as it merely feeds an underlying inability to separate ‘the Real’ from ‘reality’. On the other hand, however, it helps us see that a sensory reality is able to be dissociated from an authentic truth through our awareness that what we are seeing on stage can never be the only way of showing events. I don’t quite know where Monkey Bars fits into all this, except that the dislocation of the children’s words and adult voices represents a similar kind of merging of realities which has been experienced since 9/11. As I say, it’s early days on what I think about this whole problem at the moment, but give me time to mull it over a bit longer and I’ll see what I can come up with.

These blends of reality and the Real, adult and child, playful and serious all give Monkey Bars its charming, semi-Brechtian feel. At every stage, we have to stop ourselves from allowing our minds to run away with ideas as we remember the words currently being spoken were articulated by a child who often feels like they’re not listened to. Goode and his company invite us to think about these experiences after the show, considering them in more depth, but whilst in the theatre we must listen. It’s the least we can do.

“London Road”

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 5th September 2012

When I first saw London Road in its original Cottesloe run last year, it was clear it marked a major shift in the way we look at both musicals and theatre in general in Britain (and also demonstrated my rather lazy and shoddy criticism of the time). The very notion of shaping a musical out of verbatim speech was exciting enough on its own, let alone the support of Adam Cork’s deceptively simple orchestration and Rufus Norris’ striking staging. On second viewing, the complexity of London Road is brought to the fore, as the themes Alecky Blythe toys with present themselves in all their intricate glory.

The show (which, if you weren’t aware, tells the story of the community who had to deal with the consequences of the Ipswich murders in 2006) really does mark a shift in the cultural perception of what the musical genre can achieve. My limited knowledge of musicals allows me to know that Rent, for example, was seen as modern due to its contemplation of – for want of a better word – gritty, real-life themes, while Matilda might be seen to be modern due to its demonstration that songs in musicals don’t just have to be poems set to music. London Road, then, ramps up the ante by mixing these two signifiers of modernity in contemporary musicals, being genuinely ‘true’ to life and replicating speech patterns exactly.

So, first let’s look at the notion of verisimilitude presented by Blythe’s concept; over the course of two years following the Ipswich murders, she interviewed the inhabitants of London Road and the surrounding area, recording their take on the events as they unfolded. These words were then interpreted by Cork in song form and the characters replicated on stage. But though these words were actually said and the events actually happened, the idea of truth in London Road is a decidedly woolly one, bringing to the fore the general issues which surround the word in the first place. This is an edited, interpreted, and – ultimately – staged version of events, and so could be argued to be just as fictitious as, say, The Lion King. There’s also the fact that these conversations would never have happened if Blythe hadn’t asked the questions, so before the musical was even created there was an element of performance.

More than any other musical, then, London Road constantly forces us to be aware of the tension between truth and fiction, reality and performance. We constantly imagine these characters in their original situation, and wonder how true-to-life the actors playing them are. Like George Sr. Bluth’s surrogate in Arrested Development, the actor is a kind of puppet, acting as a conduit through which the character’s words can be disseminated to this large audience.

Then there’s the overarching story, which is also true. Not even based on something. It happened. Whereas, for example, Shakespeare took a version of history and made it his own, Blythe puts events on stage in their original context and without changing the story.

I’m running the risk of seeming negative here, so let me lay my cards down by saying that this is what makes London Road so completely unique. While musicals are often seen as an escape from the pressures of life, taking us far away into a land of fancy, Blythe forces us to sit up and look at what happened to this community and the people within it. She shows that musicals can tackle serious subjects if they are used in the right way.

There’s always something vaguely amusing about verbatim theatre, as we don’t simply listen to what is being said but also to how it is being said. The hesitations and nuances of everyday speech are just as important as the words which make sense, and reveal just as much. I think I’d go so far as to argue that Blythe is sort of doing for musicals what Pinter did for plays; he showed that theatre didn’t just have to be grand, sweeping dialogue and rhetoric, but could say just as much in silence and hesitation. By introducing pauses into his work, Pinter presented a more – and here’s that word again – ‘real’ version of human speech on the stage, meaning we leave the theatre after his plays listening to the cadences and caesuras in our friends’ dialogue. Cork and Blythe, then, have achieved a similar outcome, for by making the “um”s and “ah”s just as important in their songs as the complete sentences, they comment on the sheer depth of understanding you can glean from just listening to someone talking. Musicality is found in the most pedestrian of phrases, and laughs are harmonised so they sound like a kind of human church bell. I say this is indicative of a shift in the way we view the potential of the musical genre because – like Minchin and others – Blythe and Cork reveal that songs which mimic dialogue and fully-thought-out sentences can be just as – if not more – rewarding than those which repeat phrases and sound ridiculous when spoken normally.

I also wonder whether there’s a slight, covert dig at the commercial nature of big-budget musicals here, too. Some may argue that London Road allows very little creativity from its actors, who have to recreate the songs and speech exactly the same every night so as to be true to the original (with a few new faces in the Olivier cast, this is certainly shown to be the case; voices may be slightly different but the intonation is still spot on). But then, new cast members for many big West End musicals have to undergo just the same process, so that rather than creating a new character which works for them they have to copy their predecessor exactly so that new audience members get the same production as with the previous cast, until slowly the production becomes so bland it feels like you’re consuming polystyrene. London Road, on the other hand, has actors listening to the original so they can discover nuance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the fact the cast has to replicate speech exactly means hidden depths of emotion can be mined over a long period of time.

Here, too, the words take precedence, and Adam Cork’s smart orchestration means it never overshadows what’s being said. Unlike many musicals, which create epic scores to cover the fact the lyrics are trite, London Road uses music as a way of supporting, rather than ‘enhancing’ the singing. It all sounds relatively electronic (again, limited musical knowledge coming in to play here), in contrast to the hyper-reality presented in the text, and soars at the end of songs like “Everyone is Very Very Nervous” and “London Road in Bloom”. Remarkably, the music has been going round my head non-stop for the past few days; the hallmark of good songwriting.

There’s also something peculiarly Classical about London Road; by focussing on presenting big themes to a large audience, the show offers a kind of catharsis, for both audience and real-life characters.Though the vast majority of us sitting watching the production can’t claim to have been directly affected by the murders, we can all still remember them and their media coverage. The show is, in a way, a collective purging of emotion, as the issues the characters have are aired and we’re able to see the side of the story we didn’t see on the news, allowing us to readjust our views on the events. This democratic aspect is heightened in the larger-scale, Greek-style Olivier theatre, which places real people at the heart of the narrative. These Classical allusions, then, act in direct contrast to the modern presentation and the progressive ideas behind the production, so that, like truth versus fiction, the tension between the two is constantly played out.

On top of all this experimentation with form, London Road also brings some intriguing themes to light. As mentioned above, the piece shows the remarkable strength of the human spirit in the face of tough challenges and the power of community. The inhabitants of London Road have to cope with a gigantic media invasion, which, in a way, is merely a precursor to the huge invasion of privacy the entire populace has seen over the past five years. Katrina Lindsay’s simple design highlights this, using projections and cameras to record and play back live the actions of reporters and citizens alike, reflecting that, though we love to hate the media, we “all still watch the news and buy the papers”. We are all as guilty as each other.

The fact a small, ensemble cast (who are all brilliant, incidentally) plays dozens of characters between them brings to light the small-town mentality of these characters. Blythe presents both their good qualities and their prejudices (“We hoped it was an immigrant from nish-noff land”), forcing us to come to our own conclusions. One of the most interesting songs describes how all the men in Ipswich at the time became instantly demonized (“You automatically think it could be him”), and segregation between the sexes became more pronounced. Once again, contrasts and tensions are exploited to ensure we are constantly kept on our toes.

I realise I’ve talked very little about the production itself in this piece, but that’s because the reason London Road is so special is due to its form (and the fact much has already been written about its presentation). I doubt another musical like this will be created in the near future, but it clearly shows that the idea of what a musical is has begun to shift to fit the multiplicity of the twenty-first century. Along with MatildaLondon Road proves that musicals don’t have to be lazily written and rely on big-budgets, catering to the lowest common denominator, but can in fact spark reflection and discussion.

“London Road”

book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe

music and lyrics by Adam Cork

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Saturday 23rd July 2011

Verbatim theatre is still a relatively new form, and has yet to truly make its mark on mainstream theatre. Amazingly, Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork have brought the idea to the National, and added an extra layer of their own. Putting the words of their interviewees on Ipswich’s London Road to music creates a quite extraordinary effect which at times is truly haunting and at others great fun.

This new ‘musical’ (if you can call it that) follows the inhabitants of London Road throughout the period of the Ipswich murder and Steve Wright’s subsequent arrest. Strikingly, the focus is not the murders; it is a story of a community coming together, pulling through in hard times, and the invasion of privacy by the world’s media. The words collected by Blythe open our eyes to the viewpoints of those living in the area, with one character saying she’d “shake [Wright's] hand”, and Cork’s music injects extra layers of emotion, reflecting the community aspect of the text.

Rufus Norris’ production is wonderfully understated, forcing us to consider the words being said rather than the production itself, and Katrina Lindsay’s design reflects the rebuilding of this neighbourhood. The end of the first act, which sees the stage covered in police tape, acts in stark contrast with the hanging baskets at the very end of the play.

The ensemble of eleven actors all multi-role, playing people on the street and members of the media. Kate Fleetwood’s organiser of “London Road in Bloom” is realised with alarming detail, and the relationship between Clare Burt and Hal Fowler is hilarious to watch. All walks of life are represented to here, and the verbatim nature of the text means we can actually see them on stage.

London Road is the most original musical I’ve ever seen. It brings verbatim theatre to a whole new level, making us look at the events in a whole new light. It doesn’t deserve the negative press it has received, for this is an optimistic and wholly inoffensive production. Thank goodness the National Theatre decided to extend its run, allowing more people to see this quite remarkable piece of theatre.